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Truck platooning at risk following Wi-Fi ‘supersizing’ by FCC

Agency approves spectrum changes that could limit capacity for autonomous operations, industry warns

Volvo Group concerned about taking away truck-platooning spectrum. (Photo: Volvo)

A unanimous decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Wednesday to reallocate spectrum bandwidth set aside for vehicle safety could affect deployment of truck platooning down the road.

The agency’s four commissioners and Chairman Ajit Pai voted 5-0 to adopt new rules that repurpose 45 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum within the 5.9 gigahertz (GHz) band — currently used for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies such as platooning — for unlicensed operations such as Wi-Fi. The rules retained 30 MHz of spectrum in the band for Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).

Anticipating adoption of the new rules, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which has opposed the changes since they were formally proposed last year, urged the FCC earlier this month to delay Wednesday’s vote. “Reducing that allocation by more than half, to 30 MHz, jeopardizes both the existing deployment of, and innovation in, V2X technology,” DOT wrote.

Pai on Wednesday acknowledged DOT’s position, noting that “other agencies have complained about our decision and asked for more time.” However, “this FCC, unlike its predecessor, is not going to kick the can down the road any longer. This FCC is about action.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that only “a few thousand” vehicles were taking advantage of the technology as a way of helping to prevent accidents. “By freeing up 45 MHz of spectrum in the lower portion of this band, it will supersize Wi-Fi, a technology so many of us are relying on like never before during this pandemic.”

But for commercial trucking companies that have been relying on the 5.9 GHz band for testing truck platooning, the FCCs’ decision to reallocate a significant piece of the spectrum could be costly.

“With short-range commercial truck platooning where trucks follow close behind each other, reaction time is incredibly important. When the lead truck steps on the brake, the following truck has seconds to react,” truck platooning expert Alberto Lacaze, co-founder and president of Robotic Research, told FreightWaves.

“If the spectrum space gets too crowded, interference is more likely, and it becomes less usable. Many commercial vendors have spent a lot of money and effort working in those frequencies, and they will be able to reconfigure — but at a cost.”

One of those vendors — Volvo Group (OTC: VLVLY) — urged the FCC not to proceed with the rulemaking until it could be proved that introducing unlicensed Wi-Fi users would not compromise V2X operations.

“Volvo Group has long supported truck platooning because it benefits freight companies and professional drivers alike through safer, more fuel-efficient operations,” the company said in comments filed with the agency. It cited a research partnership with FedEx and the North Carolina Turnpike Authority demonstrating advanced driver assistance system technology to conduct on-highway truck platooning.

Thomas Jensen, vice president of transportation policy for UPS (NYSE: UPS), told the FCC that the company is exploring truck platooning and that it can improve fuel economy by as much as 10%.

“Cutting the allocation in the 5.9 GHz band by 60% inevitably will have a detrimental impact on the adoption of these platforms,” Jensen said in comments filed earlier this year.

“With less spectrum available, ITS technologies will not develop as quickly as with the full 75 MHz available. Providers likely will see less widespread use of technologies and a greater risk of congestion affecting performance.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.